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Eh, it works. Let’s try to knock this out in the time between the first rising noises and the appearance outside the door, bookbag in hand.

Update: He beat me. Next goal: get it done in less than fifteen minutes and move on.

Reading: Because of some watching (see below), I didn’t make much progress on I was Dancing, but will probably finish it today. I also remembered that last week I’d started Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the CountrySo that will be next, after the O’Connor.

Writing: Well, all I got done yesterday was blog posts because I remembered that we were serving dinner at one of the women’s shelters in town, and I hadn’t picked up our designated item, so I had to leave earlier than planned for the school pickup and make a Tuesdaytrip to Sam’s Club for that.

Listening: To people complaining about school. Does that count?

Watching: Yes, yesterday was Better Call Saul, and it was good, but not worth an entire post this week. It’s not where my mind is at the moment anyway, because I made the mistake (or not) of watching the new AMC series that they’ve position after BCS – Lodge 49. 

I’d heard a bit about it, but I usually don’t watch shows right when they premiere – it took me a year to get to Breaking Bad – my heart has been broken too many times! Mostly by HBO shows that I got all excited about and intrigued by, settled down to watch the minute they aired, but which then turned out to be overstuffed, pretentious duds – I’m looking at you, Carnivale and, come to think of it, John of Cincinnati, which immediately came to mind when I heard of the premise of this show:

Lodge 49 is a light-hearted, endearing modern fable set in Long Beach, California about a disarmingly optimistic local ex-surfer, Dud (Wyatt Russell), who’s drifting after the death of his father and collapse of the family business. Dud finds himself on the doorstep of a rundown fraternal lodge where a middle-aged plumbing salesman and “Luminous Knight” of the order, Ernie (Brent Jennings), welcomes him into a world of cheap beer, easy camaraderie and the promise of Alchemical mysteries that may — or may not — put Dud on the path to recover the idyllic life he’s lost.

I also thought: trying way too hard. 

But, um..guess what.

really liked it.

Not loved. Not thought was the Best Show Ever. But I’ll keep watching it, for sure. Here’s what I liked – and guess what – depending on the direction of the show over the next couple of weeks, yes, a full post on it will be coming. Because guess what – there’s a definite Catholic sensibility about the piece, something I can smell a mile – or a continent  – away, and sure enough, from an interview with the creator of the show, short-story writer Jim Gavin:

The first image in the book is of martyrdom! You can’t escape a Catholic childhood. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to put us through Catholic school. I’m a typical lapsed Catholic and have problems with the church for all the reasons you might imagine, but in my adult life I’ve discovered some of the theology and find a lot of beauty in it. There’s so much beauty in something like Dante.

Isn’t Dante best known for writing about the nine circles of hell?

(Laughs). Yeah — the beauty of hell! I’m a weird Catholic nerd. I like theology and the idea of mercy really runs through the book. A lot of the characters secretly wish for the world to take mercy on them for just one second. It’s very un-American to ask for help — we almost have to be taken by the collar.

So what’s the Catholic sensibility? I won’t commit fully yet, but right now, two episodes in, it’s about seeking wholeness and a place in the world despite loss, disappointment and a continual sense of indebtedness that seems to define the life of every character: everyone owes someone, everyone’s scrambling to meet that debt, everyone’s life is defined by the debt. Is there hope for restoration? Is there a way to lift the debt? Is there mercy – anywhere?

The answer seems to be maybe. And maybe it’s in this place, a place that Dudley, the ex-surfer at the center, happens upon. He finds a lodge ring in the sand on the beach, unsuccessfully tries to pawn it, and then runs out of gas in front of the lodge, a place he’s lived near his whole life, but never recognized for what it is until now because he’d just happened upon a sign.

So yearning, brokenness, an intuition that there’s something more and then finding it – perhaps even being led to it –  in a place rich with signifiers, a place where people gather in community, a place where mystery – perhaps even a merciful mystery –  is encountered: Catholic.

Ernie: Once we can see that you are dedicated, there's a whole secret 
ceremony.
Dud: Cool, a secret.  What happens at the ceremony? 
Ernie: Well, I can't tell you that.But basically, there's a solemn oath, 
and then, we will begin to entrust you with the mysteries.
Dud: Entrusted with the mysteries.That's so cool. That's all I ever wanted.

I’m prepared for disappointment, but yeah – for the moment, I’m in.

What else did I like about it: The cast and the look is refreshingly diverse – the Lodge’s membership is male and female, of varied backgrounds.  It’s got some familiar faces in it – David Pasquesi, who plays Selina Myers’ ex-husband in Veep is a delightfully loopy “apothecary” here and Adam  Godley – Elliot in Breaking Bad – is the British liason from Lynx HQ to Lodge 49, apparently.

Eating/Cooking: We ate the Ropa Vieja last night, and it was excellent.

 

 

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She was, after the Blessed Virgin herself, the most widely-venerated saint of the Medieval period, and July 22 is her feast day. Yes, it’s a Sunday – so we don’t celebrate it. But we’ll celebrate anyway.

As Pope St. Gregory the Great said of her (as is quoted in the Office of Readings today)

 We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.
  At first she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a great love. As David says: My soul has thirsted for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? And so also in the Song of Songs the Church says: I was wounded by love; and again: My soul is melted with love.
  Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? She is asked why she is sorrowing so that her desire might be strengthened; for when she mentions whom she is seeking, her love is kindled all the more ardently.
  Jesus says to her: Mary. Jesus is not recognised when he calls her “woman”; so he calls her by name, as though he were saying: Recognise me as I recognise you; for I do not know you as I know others; I know you as yourself. And so Mary, once addressed by name, recognises who is speaking. She immediately calls him rabboni, that is to say, teacher,because the one whom she sought outwardly was the one who inwardly taught her to keep on searching.
I wrote a book about St. Mary Magdalene, rather horrendously titled De-Coding Mary Magdalene (an allusion to the previous DVC-related book…I argued against it, but…lost)…but I did enjoy researching and writing the book – the history of MM’s cultus is quite revealing about both Western and Eastern Christianity. The Da Vinci Code moment has mercifully past, but I hope St. Mary Magdalene’s hasn’t.
Our Sunday Visitor took the book out of print, but I’ve republished it in digital form under the title Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. You can purchase it for .99 here. 
Over the past week, I’ve excerpted portions of the book. Scroll back to see those excerpts.

Mary Magdalene was an enormously important figure in early Christianity. She was, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. Her cultus reveals much about medieval views of women, sexuality, sin, and repentance. Today, Mary Magdalene is experiencing a renaissance, not so much from within institutional Christianity, but among people, mostly women, some Christian, many not, who have adopted her as an inspiration and patron of their own spiritual fads, paths, and fantasies.

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of contemplatives, converts, pharmacists, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, perfumers, sexual temptation, and women.
This book is a very basic introduction to the facts and the fiction surrounding Mary Magdalene. We’ll unpack what Scripture has to say about her identity and role in apostolic Christianity. We’ll see how, very soon after that apostolic era, she was adopted by a movement that remade her image in support of its own theological agenda, a dynamic we see uncannily and, without irony, repeated today.

We’ll look at the ways in which both Western and Eastern Christianity have described, honored, and been inspired by her, and how their stories about her have diverged. During the Middle Ages in the West, Mary Magdalene’s story functioned most of all as a way to teach Christians about sin and forgiveness: how to be penitent, and with the hope of redemption open to all. She made frequent appearances in religious art, writing, and drama. She inspired many to help women and girls who had turned to prostitution or were simply destitute. She inspired Franciscans and Dominicans in their efforts to preach reform and repentance.

It all sounds very positive, and most of it, indeed, is. That’s not, however, the idea we get from some contemporary commentators on Mary Magdalene’s historical image.

Many of you might have had your interest in the Magdalene piqued by the novel The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, Brown, picking up on strains bubbling through pop culture and pseudo-historical writings of the past fifteen years or so, presents a completely different Mary Magdalene than the woman we meet in the Gospels and traditional Christian piety. She was, according to Brown, Jesus’ real choice to lead his movement; a herald of Jesus’ message of the unity of the masculine and feminine aspects of reality; a valiant and revered leader opposed by another faction of Jesus’ apostles led by Peter; the mother of Jesus’ child; and in the end, some sort of divine figure herself. Mary Magdalene is no less than the Holy Grail herself, bearing the “blood” of Jesus in the form of his child.

A glorious figure, indeed, was this Mary Magdalene, but one that a patriarchal church could not permit to flourish. So, the story goes, a new image of Mary was created: that of the penitent prostitute. This Mary Magdalene, degraded and demeaned, was the tool of a conspiracy to degrade and demean women in general, and to bury the “truth” of Mary Magdalene’s leadership in early Christianity once and for all.

…….

The Magdalene-Spouse-Queen-Goddess-Holy-Grail theories are not serious history, so, frankly, we are not going to bother with them until the final chapter, and then only briefly. What we will be looking at — the history of the person and the imagery of Mary Magdalene — is daunting, rich, and fascinating enough.

The contemporary scholarship on Mary (and, indeed, on much of the history of Christian spirituality and religious practices) is growing so fast and is so rich that all I can do here is simply provide an introduction. A thorough, objective introduction, I hope, but the fact is that the burgeoning scholarship on Mary Magdalene is quite vast, and much of it, particularly that dealing with the medieval period, is not yet available in English. I have provided an annotated bibliography at the end of this book for those readers interested in pursuing this subject in more depth.
Our brief survey will undoubtedly be revealing, as we rediscover how deeply Mary Magdalene has been revered, used, and yes, misused and misunderstood by Christians over the centuries. The story, I hope, will be provocative in the best sense. For the fact is, the greatest interest in Mary Magdalene in the West today comes from those outside of or only nominally attached to the great course of traditional apostolic Christianity. Roman Catholics, in particular, seem to have lost interest in her, as, it must be admitted, they have in most saints.

Lots of people are listening to a Magdalene of their own making, a figure with only the most tentative connection to the St. Mary Magdalene of centuries of traditional Christian witness.

May the story recounted in the book play a part in reclaiming Mary Magdalene, so that we may hear her speak clearly again, as she does in the Gospels: for Jesus Christ, her Risen Lord.

***

From Pope Benedict XVI:

The story of Mary of Magdala reminds us all of a fundamental truth: a disciple of Christ is one who, in the experience of human weakness, has had the humility to ask for his help, has been healed by him and has set out following closely after him, becoming a witness of the power of his merciful love that is stronger than sin and death.

****

In 2012, we went to Mass a couple of times at La Madeleine.  Here’s a post on it, and below is a lousy photograph of the the altarpiece, St. Mary Magdalene being transported to heaven:

 

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For those of you who haven’t been reading this week – we’re currently in Mexico. The first part of the week was spent in Mexico City, and now we’re in Puebla. Read previous entries, including a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe here. 

— 1 —

This format fits very nicely into the Holy Thursday tradition of Visitation to the Seven Churches – but the account won’t be broken up that neatly, for more than the visitation happened yesterday…and I want to write about that, too.

Thursday would be our last day in Mexico City, a fact that brought both relief and the slightest little touch of sadness. It’s always that way when we travel – just when you’re settling in and feeling comfortable with the neighborhood – it’s time to go. But relief as well, because Mexico City is huge and busy, and even though our quick Thursday morning walk showed us that Holy Thursday would be far less chaotic than other days (given most people wouldn’t be working and the streets were far emptier),  it would still be a relief to get somewhere where our sightseeing wouldn’t require either a long drive or fighting crowds to see what we wanted every time. (I’d be wrong on that last point, thought!)

So, Thursday morning, we awoke, cleaned ourselves and the apartment, packed, but then set out on to see last one sight before we checked out: the parish of the Holy Family, the location of Blessed Miguel Pro’s remains.

It was about a 3/4 mile walk in a direction we hadn’t explored before. Most shops and restaurants were closed, but the street vendors were out. We made it to the church, and prayed in front of Miguel Pro’s relics, which are contained in a small casket on the right side of the church. What was really unfortunate, but not surprising, was that the museum was closed – the museum that holds, for example, the vest he was wearing when he was killed and of course other interesting items and information. I didn’t think that through when “planning” this – that of course it would be closed on Holy Thursday. I am very glad we got to the church, but really regret not being able to see the museum with the boys. I find Miguel Pro’s story so inspiring and humbling (I wrote about him in the Book of Saints under “Saints are People who are Creative)  that even without the museum, visiting him gave me a boost, and I hope did so for my sons as well, not to mention those for whom I prayed there.

 

M had spied a vendor featuring chorizo on the way, so on the return, we stopped for a taco or two, then made our way back, gave the apartment key to the doorman, called an Uber, and were driven to the east bus station, from which we’d go to Puebla.

— 2 —

Bus travel in Mexico is not like it is in the United States – it’s more like it probably was in the US before the advent of personal cars and interstates, but with better buses. These major bus stations are like very busy airports – probably more so on Thursday because of the holidays. It was very efficient, although these situations are those in which one’s lack of a language becomes a real handicap. In international airports, signage is in English and most employees speak English. There’s no reason for that to be the case here – so it isn’t. Add to that the fact that it’s loud and of course native speakers in a chaotic, busy environment where things need to get done and get done now – are going to speak very quickly.

The buses run so often that there’s no need to buy a ticket ahead of time. I just wanted to get to Puebla mid- to late afternoon, so I knew if I showed up around noon, we’d be able to get on a bus within an hour – sooner that that, it turns out. I got to the ticket counter at 12:15, requested first class tickets on a bus to Puebla, and was put on a 12:35. Total cost, a bit over 600 pesos, which is $33.

We made our way to the proper gate, checked our suitcases, got luggage tags, went through security (didn’t have to remove shoes or laptops, though!), then attempted to board the bus. This is where the language thing was a problem – well, not a problem, just annoying. If I could have understood what the woman was saying to me, I wouldn’t have kept getting in line over and over, only to be told each time, una momenta senora! 

We arrived at the gate at about 12:20, so I didn’t think twice about attempting to board, but when she looked at my ticket, she told me to step aside – una momenta!. Then one group finished, she got on the PA and said something very fast into the din, people lined up, and so up we went…una momenta, senora! Finally, a manager who spoke a bit of English looked at my ticket and was able to tell me that we wouldn’t be boarding until right before the scheduled departure time – which is indeed the way it is. If your bus is at 12:35, you’ll probably board at about 12:33, sit down, and be driven away.

A word about “first class” – the boards I read indicated that it was worth the miniscule extra fee, partly because you get a bit of food. Well, we didn’t get any food. I don’t know if the seats were any better – they were indeed comfortable – and I did get WiFi – I don’t know that’s a feature of all the buses, or just restricted to first class. I’ll probably swing for first class on the way back, too – perhaps it will be less chaotic on Sunday and I’ll have a better sense of the difference.

After a not-very exciting two hour ride  – the first part crawling through Mexico City traffic, and the last on highway, with The Mighty Macs playing on the television hanging in the front of the bus (maybe that was one of my first class benefits? The Mighty Macs? Well, then, of course it was worth it…) we arrived in Puebla, and attained a taxi through the same pre-paid system they had in the Mexico City airport – really quite effective in heading off scams.

—3–

Our hotel is an old one in the centro, just a block from the Cathedral. I let the boys chill, then set out on my usual recon mission – checking out the neighborhood, finding quick food, convenience stores, and just getting the lay of the land.

WUT.

I knew a lot of things. I knew that Puebla is not a small town (it’s the fourth-largest in Mexico, but with an historic center that was part of its appeal to me). I knew that it’s school vacation time in Mexico. But I also knew that it was, er, Holy Thursday – you know the first day of the Triduum, and part of the reason we’re here is to experience the big, serious Good Friday procession?

So I suppose what I expected as I set out was some sort of subdued preparation vibe. No. I put it this way in my head as I walked around.

Well I guess Lent is definitely over! 

Big crowds, family groups everywhere, characters posing for photos with kids, toy vendors clacking their annoying toys, huge clouds of balloons for sale, food vendors, every shop open and just…people enjoying each other and enjoying life.

Not what I expected, but, as the day wore on and I absorbed more of the experience, probably exactly what I needed to break some frankly puritanical (French-Canadian Jansenist mother combined with low-church Methodist dad) currents still running in my blood – although a lot of that was shaken loose by my late husband’s deep, but relaxed and humane piety, it’s still there, and this was an education.

I stopped in the Cathedral – which was coursing with visitors (if you’ve ever been to St. Patrick’s in NYC – it’s the same kind of vibe – just a constant flow around and around) and was treated to a performance – from the dress and relaxed attitude, I’m going to guess it was a rehearsal, but perhaps not? Anyway, it was some kind of oratorio – perhaps the Messiah, although it was a section with which I’m not familiar. Or it occurred to me, it could have been a Mass or even Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. It was lovely. I hope it was a rehearsal and I can figure out when the actual performance is – I didn’t see it posted.

 

–4–

I returned and got the boys. This was about 4:30, and they’d hardly eaten anything all day, so time for refueling before the Mass fast sets in (we’d be at the Cathedral for the 7pm). There’s a tiny shop right next to our hotel that serves tortas – one got chicken, one IMG_20180329_165031.jpggot full on Cubana and I got milanese – which I finally learned is what they call veal. Slathered with bean spread and avocado, they were delicious, heated in a press. There was an option for some heat, but the shop owner warned by over-enthusiastic son against it, dropping a tiny drop on the back of his hand and inviting him to try it – Brave one took a taste, his eyes widened, and he shook his head: no gracias! 

We then wandered until Mass time – I’ll talk more about Puebla in tomorrow’s post, because I’m sure we’ll be covering much of the same territory in a different way today.

We decided to settle into seats for Mass early – about 6:30. The Cathedral is very lovely, but kind of weirdly set up. There is just not a lot of seating. You walk in, there’s this huge, gorgeous octagonal altar, about twenty rows of seating, and then a huge closed off area for the organ and choir. There’s seating on the side, yes, but in all I can’t see that there are actual seats for more than a few hundred people. What I finally theorized was: first, when it was originally constructed, they probably didn’t have pews, so there was more room, and secondly, when it was originally constructed,  perhaps the organ space – if there was one – wasn’t as large as it is now.

So we thought it was a good idea to claim a seat early – which it was. It got very crowded, naturally. And it wasn’t bad getting there early – we could watch the preparations, mostly one fellow who climbed high above the altar to light the (oil) candles and working to replace a couple of them.

Liturgical notes:

  • Mass was celebrated by the archbishop (or a bishop – there are auxiliaries – but given his age I’m presuming it was the archbishop. Only one priest concelebrant, a deacon, an MC, and an interesting collection of serving ministers. Candlebearers and the VIMP (who holds the archbishop’s accoutrements during Mass) were older women dressed in identical grey suits. There was one teenage girl who was the actual altar server. Other robed adults floated around doing things. (Unlike the Shrine of Guadalupe, where everyone on the altar  – including the troop of servers) were male.
  • The music was provided by the organist and a small choir of adults, with a strong tenor cantoring the responsorial psalm. I have no idea what they were singing (there was no “worship aid” as we like to call it…), but every piece was known by the congregation by heart. The music sat between emotional Latin pop church music and more traditional sacred music, leaning more towards the latter in tone.
  • During the Gloria, two other women in grey suits were in charge of ringing the bells which were very cool – I didn’t get a good photo (partly because there were signs everywhere forbidding photography – I’m thinking just during Mass – I hope) – but will try to go back today or tomorrow.  There were two large rings of small bells – maybe two dozen – mounted on pillars for the choir area behind us. They are rung by pulling ropes – and one worked great, but the woman ringing the bells behind us couldn’t get them to work, as valiantly as she tried during the entire Gloria!
  • The archbishop preached, in a sincere but subdued tone, so that even if I understood Spanish, I don’t think I would have been able to understand him. I saw several people look at each other and shrug during the homily.
  • No foot washing, which was great in my book, but unfortunately no ritual stripping of the altar either – which is always such a solemn and sobering moment. The archbishop did of course process then to the altar of reservation back behind the sanctuary followed by a couple of hundred of us.

 

 

–5 —

What to do now? Well….I ventured…there’s this tradition of visiting seven churches where the Eucharist is reserved on Holy Thursday night. I’ve always wanted to do it, but doing so in Birmingham would require driving all around town – there are so many churches here – we could probably knock of seven in about thirty minutes.

They were not super enthusiastic, as well as doubtful about my claim, but you know what? I wasn’t too far off. If we had been totally business-like about the whole thing, and not stopped to watch and observe and figure out some new sights we were seeing it wouldn’t have taken longer than thirty minutes.

So we set out. And discovered something new and quite wonderful. Those of you with roots in this culture won’t be surprised. But I don’t and I was. This visitation of the seven churches is A Thing.  It’s what everyone is doing on Holy Thursday night – wandering around the center of the city with their families and friends, stopping in churches, praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament and enjoying the end of Lent -for at the door of every church were vendors set up selling the typical snacks of this area – the corn, the little tortillas, frying, topped with salsas and cheese, and turnovers.

IMG_20180329_203349.jpg

I was stunned. I don’t know if this is the “correct” way of seeing it, but this is what came to me as we walked amidst the other families, joined them in prayer and smelled the scents of bounty:

After the Last Supper, Jesus took his friends to the Garden of Gethsemane and asked them to stay awake with him. They didn’t. They slept. As we pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday night, we are trying to stay awake, to keep watch with him. We know this. But in this culture, it takes on a different flavor. The entire community – not just me as an isolated individual – is remaining with Jesus, not in strained imitation, but in joy and trust that as he remains faithful to us, we are going to try to be faithful to him, as we are, in community and in joy for the life we trust he has given us – a life that is real and full because of him. We flow into his Presence in the church, we pray, we keep watch, and we flow back out into the world as it is, knowing that in the midst of it, he lives, and we are doing our best to stay with him – not just by ourselves, but as a people.

Plus, you know, Lent is over!

One really intriguing note – that perhaps someone familiar with this can explain. At every church door, in addition to the regular food being sold, there was a table, usually manned by  a religious sister, of big bags of white sheets and scraps of..something. I could not figure out what it was – I originally thought it was wax left over from candle making. I finally asked one woman in some broken Spanish, and a sister who spoke English approached and explained: No not wax but leftover sheets from host-baking. “We eat them as a snack,” she said, “We think they are delicious.” And indeed, as the night went on, that’s what we saw – people walking about munching the scraps. I don’t know if it’s something that is only done this time of year, or all the time.

–6–

So finally, the churches. I don’t have time to figure out what churches we went to. We just started at the Cathedral, and moved towards lighted bell towers. Every church was full of people praying, and many had lines to go in – the doors were marked entrada and salida for crowd control. There were different things going on in each church – silence in one, the rosary being prayed in another, sisters singing in another.

Photos below, with video at Instagram. I also don’t have time to artistically arrange these photos – gotta get going, and this Wi-Fi is unreliable. So I’m going to toss them here and hope for the best. You can click on photos and enlarge them.

 

–7–

Well, I probably have more to say, but this has taken long enough – time to rouse the troops and get ready for the Good Friday procession…..

Oh, and check out my entry in Living Faith tomorrow. 

 

 

 

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(This is a repeat, but worth a revisit. Feel free to use the image at the bottom of the post.)

(Welcome new visitors – check out a new posts with some more Vintage Catholic thoughts on fasting – from St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Augustine. )

 

What’s Lent? This thing that’s coming soon?

You might have the impression that Lent is all about you. Your personal growth. Your spiritual health. Your happiness.

Maybe.

Or maybe not. Maybe there’s more to Lent than how it’s going to make your life better.

For you see, there’s a difference between understanding Lent as a particularly listcicle-friendly (40 days! 3 disciplines!)  opportunity for an individual’s spiritual growth and understanding it as the entire Church’s solemn call and responsibility to do penance and grow in faith.

Are those different things? Yes.  Think about it. Not in tension, not opposed, but slightly different roads and paradigms.  The first is centered on pleasing ourselves, the second on pleasing God.

It is the distinction highlighted by Francis de Sales’ last of three pointers for a good fast, highlighted below: fast to please God alone.  To many of us, this sounds odd, since we have been formed to believe that we need to nothing to please God other than accepting ourselves as we are, haven’t we?

For what happens in modern spiritual discourse is that we have collapsed the two – we please God most of all when we are ourselves and are content with ourselves.  When you dig deeply, that’s true – when we are the selves God created and that above all brings us contentment and peace.

But what our spiritual wisdom has also reminded us of is that reaching that point requires stripping and sacrifice and a hard journey – not simply acceptance of the Good News that we are God’s creatures and loved by him. It is complicated, yes, but the bottom line seems to me that when you remove penance and the organic nature of fallen creation and the role of our fallen selves in that, you really are just left with individuals on a journey to feel okay about themselves, and not much more.

It’s an intriguing distinction. As an amateur student of the strangeness of modern Catholicism, I am most often struck by the sharp ironies and waves of unintended consequences that mark our slice of history.

We post-Conciliar Catholics were formed in a way that emphasized both individual spiritual freedom yet also the greater weight of  community, perhaps best encapsulated by the sense that no, Mass is not the time to come and focus on God’s presence as an individual. Rather, it is the time in which individuals freely come, but not to pray individually, but rather to do “the work of the people” in liturgy.

(This is why some liturgists think the worst sin one can commit during Mass is to kneel and pray quietly after receiving Communion instead of standing with the group and singing that you are bread ready to be chewed for justice or some such. We are here as the people of God, by God.)

The irony to me is that when you consider pre-Vatican II materials, the sense of communal identity was actually much stronger in those bad old days when (we are told) indvidual piety was emphasized above community.

So why is it that now, we are continually having to be told that we are community, experience community-building experiences and asked how we would like our parishes to create stronger communities?

Part of it is simply cultural and social.  “Community,” period was stronger, sometimes to oppressive extents.  You didn’t have to build community, you were born into it, you lived in it your entire life, and perhaps woe to you if you attempted to crack those walls.

Double-sided and full of shadows – that’s everything, that’s life.

But you see it in older treatments of Lent.   If you read pre-Vatican II popular and catechetical works on Lent, you encounter an unmistakable sense of the season being about the entire Church – the community – engaged in a journey – being willing to sacrifice in order to form itself to be more like Christ, in gratitude for all God has given, in sorrow for sin, with each individual’s efforts being a part of that greater whole, and being important because of it.

But today, we are on our own. Lent is about you and your walk with Jesus and making that better. It’s ironic. Matthew Kelly’s “Best Lent Ever” marketing campaign is the pinnacle of this sensibility: it’s all about Lent as a peak individual consumer experience – like Sandals for the soul.

As an aside on the “best Lent ever” slogan…I’m reminded of the more traditional way of inspiring spiritual fervor during the season, something an older priest up in Indiana used to regularly pull out and that I’ve heard on retreat…not make it your best Lent ever but a reminder that we should approach the season as if it were our “Last Lent ever.”

(The same template might be used for Advent or even about Sunday and reception of Communion….receive Communion as if it might be your last..)

Dire, yes, but as the kids say, you’re not wrong. 

Because it could be, indeed.  Both “best” and “last” indeed center us on the self and the needs of the soul, but with different orientations and expectations. 

And then there is penance.  Fasting serves many purposes, as St. Francis de Sales will tell us. But at root, it is a penitential act, not simply one to help us to “grow in faith” and find peace and joy and focus.  Yes it does, indeed do so, but it does so, Catholic tradition has normally held, because, among other things, the penitential act of fasting is part of the process of ridding our lives of sin and its effects – a process which  of course brings us closer to Christ. Not just because it’s fasting and giving stuff up, but because it is penitential.  I’ll let St. Francis de Sales explain.

 

To treat of fasting and of what is required to fast well, we must, at the start, understand that of itself fasting is not a virtue. The good and the bad, as well as Christians and pagans, observe it. The ancient philosophers observed it and recommended it. They were not virtuous for that reason, nor did they practice virtue in fasting. Oh, no, fasting is a virtue only when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God. Thus it happens that it profits some and not others, because it is not undertaken by all in the same manner.

We find some people who think that to fast well during the holy season of Lent it is enough to abstain from eating some prohibited food. But this thought is too gross to enter into the hearts of religious, for it is to you I speak, as well as persons dedicated to Our Lord. We know very well that it is not enough to fast exteriorly if we do not also fast interiorly and if we do not accompany the fast of the body with that of the spirit.

 

The first condition is that we must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, whole-heartedly, universally and entirely. If I recount to you St. Bernard’s words regarding fasting, you will know not only why it is instituted but also how it ought to be kept.

He says that fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth, for our gourmandizing and for our gluttony. Since sin entered the world through the mouth, the mouth must do penance by being deprived of foods prohibited and forbidden by the Church, abstaining from them for the space of forty days. But this glorious saint adds that, as it is not our mouth alone which has sinned, but also all our other senses, our fast must be general and entire, that is, all the members of our body must fast. For if we have offended God through the eyes, through the ears, through the tongue, and through our other senses, why should we not make them fast as well? And not only must we make the bodily senses fast, but also the soul’s powers and passions — yes, even the understanding, the memory, and the will, since we have sinned through both body and spirit.

How many sins have entered into the soul through the eyes, as Holy Scripture indicates? [1 In. 2:16]. That is why they must fast by keeping them lowered and not permitting them to look upon frivolous and unlawful objects; the ears, by depriving them of listening to vain talk which serves only to fill the mind with worldly images; the tongue, in not speaking idle words and those which savor of the world or the things of the world. We ought also to cut off useless thoughts, as well as vain memories and superfluous appetites and desires of our will. In short, we ought to hold in check all those things which keep us from loving or tending to the Sovereign Good. In this way interior fasting accompanies exterior fasting.

This is what the Church wishes to signify during this holy time of Lent, teaching us to make our eyes, our ears and our tongue fast. For this reason she omits all harmonious chants in order to mortify the hearing; she no longer says Alleluia, and clothes herself completely in somber and dark colors. And on this first day she addresses us in these words: Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return [Gen. 3:19], as if she meant to say: “Oh man, quit at this moment all joys and merrymaking, all joyful and pleasant reflections, and fill your memory with bitter, hard and sorrowful thoughts. In this way you will make your mind fast together with your body.”

This is also what the Christians of the primitive Church taught us when, in order to spend Lent in a better way, they deprived themselves at this time of ordinary conversations with their friends, and withdrew into great solitude and places removed from communication with people…….

 

The second condition is never to fast through vanity but always through humility. If our fast is not performed with humility, it will not be pleasing to God…..

But what is it to fast through humility? It is never to fast through vanity. Now how can one fast through vanity? According to Scripture there are hundreds and hundreds of ways, but I will content myself with telling you one of them, for it is not necessary to burden your memory with many things. To fast through vanity is to fast through self-will, since this self-will is not without vanity, or at least not without a temptation to vanity. And what does it mean to fast through self-will? It is to fast as one wishes and not as others wish; to fast in the manner which pleases us, and not as we are ordered or counseled. You will find some who wish to fast more than is necessary, and others who do not wish to fast as much as is necessary. What causes that except vanity and self-will? All that proceeds from ourselves seems better to us, and is much more pleasant and easy for us than what is enjoined on us by another, even though the latter is more useful and proper for our perfection. This is natural to us and is born from the great love we have for ourselves.

Let each one of us examine our conscience and we will find that all that comes from ourselves, from our own judgment, choice and election, is esteemed and loved far better than that which comes from another. We take a certain complacency in it that makes the most arduous and difficult things easy for us, and this complacency is almost always vanity. You will find those who wish to fast every Saturday of the year, but not during Lent.{2} They wish to fast in honor of Our Lady and not in honor of Our Lord. As if Our Lord and Our Lady did not consider the honor given to the one as given to the other, and as if in honoring the Son by fasting done for His intention, one did not please the Mother, or that in honoring the Virgin one did not please the Savior! What folly! But see how human it is: because the fast that these persons impose on themselves on Saturday in honor of our glorious Mistress comes from their own will and choice, it seems to them that it should be more holy and that it should bring them to a much greater perfection than the fast of Lent, which is commanded. Such people do not fast as they ought but as they want.

There are others who desire to fast more than they should, and with these one has more trouble than with the first group.

The glorious St. Augustine, in the Rule that he wrote for his religious (later adapted for men religious), orders that one follow the community as much as possible, as if he wished to say: Do not be more virtuous than the others; do not wish to practice more fasting, more austerities, more mortifications than are ordered for you. Do only what the others do and what is commanded by your Rule, according to the manner of living that you follow, and be content with that. For although fasting and other penances are good and laudable, nevertheless, if they are not practiced by those with whom you live, you will stand out and there will be some vanity, or at least some temptation to esteem yourself above others. Since they do not do as you do, you experience some vain complacency, as if you were more holy than they in doing such things.

Follow the community then in all things, said the great St. Augustine. Let the strong and robust eat what is ordered them, keeping the fast and austerities which are marked, and let them be content with that. Let the weak and infirm receive what is offered them for their infirmity, without wishing to do what the robust do. Let neither group amuse themselves in looking to see what this one eats and what that one does not eat, but let each one remain satisfied with what she has and with what is given to her. By this means you will avoid vanity and being particular.

 

The third condition necessary for fasting well is to look to God and to do everything to please Him, withdrawing within ourselves in imitation of a great saint, St. Gregory the Great, who withdrew into a secret and out-of-the-way place where he remained for some time without anyone knowing where he was, being content that the Lord and His angels knew it.

 

This is all that I had to tell you regarding fasting and what must be observed in order to fast well. The first thing is that your fast should be entire and universal; that is, that you should make all the members of your body and the powers of your soul fast: keeping your eyes lowered, or at least lower than ordinarily; keeping better silence, or at least keeping it more punctually than is usual; mortifying the hearing and the tongue so that you will no longer hear or speak of anything vain or useless; the understanding, in order to consider only holy and pious subjects; the memory, in filling it with the remembrance of bitter and sorrowful things and avoiding joyous and gracious thoughts; keeping your will in check and your spirit at the foot of the crucifix with some holy and sorrowful thought. If you do that, your fast will be universal, interior and exterior, for you will mortify both your body and your spirit. The second condition is that you do not observe your fast or perform your works for the eyes of others. And the third is that you do all your actions, and consequently your fasting, to please God alone, to whom be honor and glory forever and ever.

Lent 2016

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Today is her memorial. If you don’t know her story, take a look at B16’s encyclical Spe Salvi – in which the pope uses St. Josephine as his very first example of “hope.” You really can’t find a better brief introduction:

Yet at this point a question arises: in what does this hope consist which, as hope, is “redemption”? The essence of the answer is given in the phrase from the Letter to the Ephesians quoted above: the Ephesians, before their encounter with Christ, were without hope because they were “without God in the world”. To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.

The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life.

Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ.

bakhita5Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited.

What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.

On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

There is quite a bit of biographical material on St. Josephine Bakhita, including an Italian film that doesn’t look lame, based on the trailer.

Ignatius Press published a translation of an Italian biography called Bakhita: From Slave to Saint. You can read big chunks of it online via a Google Book search. There is quite a bit of interest, including the account of how she came to stay in Italy.

Bakhita, as recounted above, had been kidnapped by Muslim slave traders. After being bought and sold a few times, she was finally purchased – for the purpose of redemption – by an Italian consul. After a time, he took her and another African, a boy, to Genoa. She was taken into the home of one Augusto Michieli, where she eventually became the nanny to Michieli’s daughter. Turina Michieli, wife of Augusto, was a lapsed, probably agnostic Russian Orthodox, so religion was not a part of the family’s life.

It was via a fascinating fellow named Illuminato Chechinni, who managed some Michieli’s land, that Bakhita was exposed to Christianity. There came a point at which the Michielis were going to return to Africa, and so Bakhita and her young charge were housed in an Institute for catechumens in Venice for a time, until final arrangements were made. When those arrangements were, indeed made, and the time came for the whole family to return to Africa…Bakhita refused.

It was quite a tussle, that even came to involve the Patriarch of Venice, and the authorities eventually decided that since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita was not a slave, had always been free since she landed on Italian shores, and was free to do what she liked.

Bakhita had dictated an autobiography to a fellow sister, and this is an excerpt about that time:

Nine months later Mrs. Turina returned to Venice to claim her rights over me. But I refused to follow her back to Africa, since my instruction for baptism had not yet been completed. I also knew that, if I had followed her after receiving baptism, I would not have had the opportunity to practise my new religion. That is why, I thought it better to remain with the Sisters.
She burst out into a fit of anger, calling me ungrateful in forcing her to return to Africa alone, after all she had done for me.
But I was firm in my decision. She had a hundred and one pleas to make, but I would not bend to any one of them. I felt greatly pained at seeing her so upset and angry, because I really loved her.
I am sure the Lord gave me strength at that moment, because He wanted me for Himself alone. Oh. the goodness of God!
The next day Mrs. Turina returned to the Institute, with another lady, and tried again, with even harsher threats to convince me to follow her. But to no avail. The two ladies left the Catechumenate very irritated.
The Superior of the House contacted His Eminence, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice informing him of the delicate situation. The Patriarch referred the matter to the King’s Procurator who replied that, in Italy. slavery was illegal. I was therefore a free person. Mrs. Turina too called on the King’s Procurator, hoping to obtain from him permission to force me to follow her, but she received the same answer.
On the third day, there she was again, at the Institute, accompanied by the same lady and by a brother-in-law who was an officer in the Army. Also present were the His Eminence Domenico Agostini, the Chairman of the Charity Association, the Superior of the Institute and some of the Sisters belonging to the Catechumenate. The Patriarch was the first to speak: a long  discussion ensued, which, fortunately, ended in my favour.
Mrs. Turina was in tears, tears of anger and disappointment. She snatched the child, who was clinging to me, unwilling to part, and forced her to follow her. I was so upset that I could scarcely  utter a word. Finally, I saw them leaving. I was in tears myself.
And yet, I felt happy that had not yielded. It was 29 November 1889.

And so she stayed, was baptized, and eventually became a professed religious, serving her community and the surrounding people in various ways, giving mission talks, serving the wounded during World War II, and eventually dying in 1947 – canonized in 2000.

Today is, appropriately, a day of prayer and awareness against human trafficking. USCCB page here. 

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The groove calls, but is elusive, considering All The Things that must be tended to these days: a persistently “low tire pressure” light on the HS boy’s car….(nail…fixed…no charge!)…hair appointment put off one week already, that can’t be put off another lest I start getting comments about my grandson when I’m out and about with my 12-year old.

Etc.

But “school” has begun, as I indicated yesterday. More math, more talking and thinking, more piano today.  Tried out a new local pizza place for lunch. Because that’s one of the many advantages in having a kid at home during the day. You can try out new restaurants with a companion, and since it’s lunch, and since there is one fewer of you than usual….it’s less of a financial risk.

Tomorrow a friend spends much of the day with us, and after that perhaps a bit more thickness will be added to the day. He indicted that as part of his History Bee prep, he wanted to understand the basics of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, so I ordered Durant’s book and this cartoon intro to philosophy for him. I got writing done this morning before he woke up. This might work.

If you want occasional snippets of the day as life proceeds, do check out Instagram Stories. (You can only access Stories on the app, I think.)

Older kid’s school is Getting Serious About the Phones You Guys. Seriously, This Time. Just stop, okay?

We’ll see how long that lasts….

Maybe if the pedagogy stopped assuming internet reliance…that might help?

Hush, now. That’s crazy talk.

Today: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – Edith Stein. 

She’s in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints:

 

 

 

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Post title because I’m celebrating survival tonight, and because the restaurant in the photos above was built for the crew of Survivor: Guatemala back in 2005 when the season was filmed at Yaxha. Another excellent meal.

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